Fatu grew up in the village Poutasi in Western Samoa, immigrating to New Zealand in 1966. Exhibiting since the early 1980s, he became a full-time artist in 1988. He is a multi-media artist and while primarily a painter, he explores a range of other mediums including bronze, wood and stone sculpture, pottery design, lithographs, woodcuts and glass works. Fatu gains inspiration from Polynesian art forms such as siapo (bark cloth), tatau (tattooing), weaving, carving and ceremonial mask making. In these forms he has discovered a rich
The term fa'asamoa can be generally defined as “the Samoan way". Fa'asamoa has become the unifying element of Fatu's work. The social structure of Samoan society is held together and actively maintained by an adherence to unwritten but understood cultural conventions embodied in fa'a Samoa which binds family networks to traditional customs and ceremonies. Fatu explains, "In my culture, values are expressed in various forms, religious and traditional. Fa'asamoa values are manifested in the conventions of ava (respect), fa' aloalo (reverence) and alof'a (love compassion and concern). They form the basis of the spiritual and cultural identity of the Samoan people."
Fatu's work is included in a number of prestigious national and international collections including the National Gallery, Brisbane; Auckland City Art Gallery; Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington and Waikato Museum of Art and History, Hamilton. His work is also included in an extensive number of private collections in New Zealand, Australia, United States of America, England, Holland, American Samoa, Western Samoa and Japan. Fatu has exhibited in major group exhibitions including Le Folauga, 2007, Auckland Museum and Samoa Contemporary, 2008, Pataka, Porirua. Fatu is represented by Warwick Henderson, Auckland.
Fatu Feu’u “Pae Pae” June 2014
History dictates painting was not a common practice in relation to traditional oceanic art forms of either Aboriginal, Hawaiian, Maori or Samoan origins. Tapa cloth painting is however a traditional Samoan Art form and it is from here the genesis of Feu’u’s painting originates. While in many cases the matrix of Feu’u’s paintings are based on Tapa, the imagery references Samoan objects associated with religious ceremonies, cultural rites, and Polynesian mythology which have been passed down from generation to generation. Although Feu’u now paints and communicates from the privileged position of a titled Samoan, a Matai and Orator, he is essentially a master artist. It is poignant at this time to put Feu’u s art into a brief historical context and perspective.
Many artists in the last century were greatly inspired by and referenced primitive or tribal art including Modigliani (Stone Head, 1911) and Picasso (Head of Woman, 1947) for example. By the 1950’s and 1960’s tribal or oceanic art, in particular Tiki and mask-like imagery from Hawaii and beyond, had infiltrated virtually every decorative art form from prints and paintings to tea towels and wallpaper. New Zealand artists were not immune and painters such as Theo Schoon, Denis Knight Turner, Geoff and Rex Fairburn, and Gordon Walters introduced Melanesian and Maori carving patterns, rock drawings and imagery into their work. Curtain fabrics designed by Rex Fairburn and Theo Schoon were exported to America in the 1950s. More latterly NZ artist Dick Frizzell has controversially employed “Tiki” imagery widely in his artwork even extending the patterns on to T-shirts and tea towels. Max Gimblett now based in New York is an internationally recognised artist who has also used the Frangipani image to good effect in his quatrefoil works. Feu’u’s painting however remains distanced from this appropriation which some have maintained is an illegitimate use of sacred imagery. Feu’u nevertheless acknowledges “no man is an island…(we) don’t own these symbols. Pacific art goes back thousands of years with Lapita pottery, Tapa making and even the star charts Polynesians used to navigate by. There are a lot of European artists appropriating Tapa or at least being inspired by the design….the more people who get inspired by (as opposed to plagiarising) contemporary Pacific art the better.” (1)
It was in fact European art books and magazines that provided a focus and the realization that he first believed he could become an artist. In the 1970’s after immigrating to New Zealand from Samoa he became a colour consultant and designer for Nylex Fabrics and it was from here a professional grounding in painting and design was established. New Zealand artists who encouraged and influenced Feu’u in the early stages of his career included Tony Fomison, Philip Clairmont, Ralph Hotere and Alan Maddox. Feu’u said “Tony (Fomison) got me painting not just with my eyes but with my soul……..(2) Samoan culture or Fa‘a samoa is very much alive and valid in contemporary life” says Feu’u, “It is part of everything we do…. I am trying to keep our culture alive….. I looked at all the old symbols and things that have messages and meaning – masks, totems, paddles ….I believe if you go back to the origins of things you find solutions”.(3)
Feu’u continues to employ his symbolic imagery where colour and contrast are a strong feature of the new series “Pae Pae” (Threshold). Here we see the use of striking primary colours highlighted against rich black outlines or red backgrounds (eg “Fale Mana” catalogue #7 and “Fetu Ao” catalogue #3). This technique dovetails perfectly with the cross-hatching and segmented patterns embracing the symbols and designs. “I use colour bars…(segmented) and I see either moods or forms of balance. They reflect the cool and hot periods in life. Somewhere in between you have to strike a balance ……I also make up many symbols and some are related to things that other cultures have done before. I do the spirit bird (as in “Fale Mana”) to symbolise my genealogy or ancestral spirit. That’s what it means to me. If symbols speak to me, I use them as I hear them”. 
The masks depicted in this latest series become more powerful with the increased definition and contrasting colours. The addition of eyes and other facial features add a more expressive and animated element than any painted previously. They appear to operate as figures who are cultivating and provoking communication within a family – a voice, an orator, (eg. “Orator” catalogue #5) a symbol of solidarity. Feu’u extends this philosophy to include a complete culture when he states “I believe the structure and foundation of any family is communication and relationships – any culture for that matter. As an extension I consider this to include the Pacific environment and everything it encompasses. The kissing fish for example (see “Pele Ika” catalogue #1 and “Talanoa” catalogue #10) also refer to this communication – working together – not just from a family standpoint but uniting to protect our culture and our cherished Pacific environment”. (5)
Feu’u through his painting and sculpture has preserved, enhanced, invented and immortalized this imagery and his “Fa’a samoa” for future generations with his distinctive style. His iconic artworks are now recognised and collected globally and he was recently included in the major exhibition “Made in Oceania” mounted by the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum in Cologne, Germany. This new exhibition “Pae Pae” provides the latest window into the life and Painting of Fatu Feu’u.
Text Warwick Henderson, June 2014
(1) Speaking in Colour, Fatu Feu’u, p12-25, S Mallon and P Pereira, Te Papa Press, 1997
(2) Fatu Feu’u on life and Art, Fatu Feu’u and Shone Jennings, Little Island Press, 2012, p122
(3) Ibid, p18
(4) Ibid, p18
(5) Fatu Feu’u, interview with Warwick Henderson , Auckland, 20.6.2014